The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger


Delivered 12/17/2000
Text: John 3:16
To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.

"For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life." An unusual text for this time of year, eh? Not really. Stay with me.

Admittedly, things can be confusing right now. You are familiar with the cartoon, "Family Circus." At Christmas time, Big Sister comes to P. J. and says, "Want me to tell you a story, P. J.? Jesus was born just in time for Christmas up at the North Pole surrounded by eight tiny reindeer and the Virgin Mary. Then Santa Claus showed up with lots of toys and stuff and some swaddling clothes, the Three Wise Men and the elves all sang carols, while the Little Drummer Boy and Scrooge helped Joseph trim the tree. In the meantime, Frosty the Snowman saw the star..."(1) As I say, confusing.

Another cartoon. "Marvin." Marvin is on his knees praying. "...and a tricycle and a basketball and..."

Marvin's friend comes up and asks, "What cha doin', Marvin?"

The boy replies, "Praying to Santa Claus."

The little friend says, "Don't you know anything? You can't pray to him!"

Marvin responds, "Oh, sorry, I didn't realize Santa was secular."(2)

Hmm. As we say, confusing. It is even confusing in the church - congregations regularly wrestle with how to go about the celebration. We look at the calendar and see that December 25th is still a week away, but all month long there has been the temptation to jump right over Advent and directly to Christmas in our music and worship. The Mall does it; why not us? Then there are the obligatory annual reminders that "Jesus is the Reason for the Season," and to "Keep Christ in Christmas," despite the fact that we know he has never left it. We come into church on a Sunday and beat ourselves up about excessive spending, excessive partying, excessive scurrying, excessive EXCESSES, then go out and repeat the process all over again.

The reason for all the confusion is that we are celebrating TWO holidays at this time of year, not one. They are related - both are called Christmas - but they are very different; one is sacred, the other, as young Marvin would ruefully note, is secular.

If it is any comfort, the confusion goes way, way back. If you look up the origins of Christmas in the encyclopedia, you will find material like this:

The reason why Christmas came to be celebrated on December 25th remains uncertain, but most probably the reason is that early Christians wished the date to coincide with the pagan Roman festival marking the "birthday of the unconquered sun" (natalis solis invicti); this festival celebrated the winter solstice, when the days again begin to lengthen and the sun begins to climb higher in the sky. The traditional customs connected with Christmas have accordingly developed from several sources as a result of the coincidence of the celebration of the birth of Christ with the pagan agricultural and solar observances at midwinter. In the Roman world the Saturnalia (December 17th) was a time of merrymaking and exchange of gifts. December 25th was also regarded as the birth date of the Persian mystery god Mithra, the Sun of Righteousness. On the Roman New Year (January 1st), houses were decorated with greenery and lights, and gifts were given to children and the poor.(3)
OK. You have probably heard all that before, or at least variations of it. But, to be accurate, the choice of December 25th as the date to celebrate the holy birth is not as mysterious as some would have us believe. You see, there is another festival which the church has observed for centuries (and even before any celebration of Christmas) called the Feast of the Annunciation. It is observed on March 25th and commemorates the Angel Gabriel's visit to Jesus' mother: "Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus."(4) Do the math. Nine months from March 25th is December 25th. Voilá! Christmas. Is that really the date of Jesus' birth? Probably not, but at least you can see where it came from - it is MORE than simply a "Christianizing" of Saturnalia.

Yes, the celebration became a big deal, despite the fact that the church insisted then (as it does now), that the REALLY big deal is Easter. By the 5th century, the Festival of the Nativity had taken on such importance in the Christian world that it signaled the beginning of the liturgical year. This continued up until the 11th century when the period of Advent was added to the Christmas cycle and the first Sunday in Advent from then on became the start of the new liturgical year, a practice which, as you know, continues to this day.(5)

Along the way, Christian beliefs combined with existing pagan feasts and winter rituals to create many of the long-standing traditions of Christmas celebrations which we continue to observe. Christmas trees, decorations, parties, gift giving, and so on. Mistletoe? Ancient Europeans believed that the mistletoe plant held magical powers to give life and fertility, to bring about peace, and to protect against disease. Northern Europeans associated the plant with the Norse goddess of love, Freya, and developed the custom of kissing underneath mistletoe branches.(6) We Christians stole the practice, and I, for one, am forever grateful!

Of course, the celebrations can become excessive. For a brief time during the 17th century, the Puritans banned Christmas in England and in some English colonies in North America because they felt it had become a season best known for gambling, flamboyant public behavior, and overindulgence in food and drink. Sound familiar?

What it all amounts to is this: CONFUSION. Yes, as people of faith at Christmas we celebrate God's incomparable gift of Jesus, the one who bridges the gap between earth and heaven, our Redeemer, our Savior. But as products of our culture, we also celebrate the secular appurtenances that have grown up around the festival. Both are called CHRISTMAS, but they are very different. One holiday has fir trees, tinsel and trappings, and these days begins with TV commercials as soon as the Back-to-School specials are done in September. The other holiday has a humble birth, lowly shepherds, heavenly angels, God in human flesh, and begins on Christmas Eve. TWO Christmas celebrations. Very different, but I would insist that they need not be mutually exclusive. If we can learn to separate them, then we might actually come to enjoy both. They can complement one another rather than compete with one another.

Now, with that in mind, hear again our scripture lesson: "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life." For God so loved the world that he GAVE... What could be more "Christmas-ie" than giving? Christmas is the one time of the year when our thoughts tend more toward GIVING than to GETTING. Even the most selfish among us find our thoughts turned toward others. We go out of our way to consider family and friends. We even do things for people we normally forget: food baskets for the poor, toys for tots, and so on. You remember what happened to Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol - after being the stingiest man in all of literature, because of Christmas, he changes. And finally, he vows near the end of the story to "honor Christmas in my heart and try to keep it all the year."

Did you happen to see "Ally McBeal" this past Monday? Strange usual. One of the law partners was representing a second-grade school teacher who had just lost his job because he believed that he was Santa Claus. The attorney asked, "Mr preparation for your testimony, just a couple of questions. It's December 11th, have you started making toys?"

"Santa" laughed. "Are you nuts? I'm retired."

"Well, who makes all the presents?" asked the lawyer.

"Toys-R-Us. Parents buy them now. They also take care of the distribution. I have been basically pushed into a forced retirement."

The lawyer asked, "So you don't really count anymore?"

"Of course, I count," Santa replied. "I'm something to believe in. Flying reindeer, stockings stuck on the mantle piece. The magic of Christmas, the fantasy of it all. Of course, I count. These times, they need me more than ever."(7) Hear, hear!

Christmas text: "For God so loved the world that he GAVE..."

And who is the personification of giving in our culture? Our kids know if we don't. SANTA CLAUS. Christian pulpits occasionally object to putting too MUCH emphasis on St. Nick, and there is no question that it happens. But if Jesus has to share these celebrations with anyone, I am glad it is Santa because that jolly old elf with the strange wardrobe and need for a haircut makes the idea of giving come alive in ways that no pulpit ever has. The sacred and the secular meet. God bless Santa!

Back to "Ally McBeal." The scene has shifted from the lawyers' office to the courtroom. The attorney defending the action of the school system in their dismissal of "Santa Claus" asks, "When students come in and ask what day it is, what do you tell them?"

"I tell them it's Christmas."



"And is it Christmas today, sir? December 11th."

"Well, that depends."

"On what?"

"Well, on whether you're willing to consider the needs of children, whether you're willing to remember the weakness and loneliness of people who are growing old, whether you're willing to stop asking yourself how much your friends love you and ask whether you love them enough. Then you may keep Christmas... everyday."

Indeed. Of course, depending on our ages and ways of seeing the world, our image of Santa varies. But the picture of that broad, happy face "and a little round belly that shook when he laughed like a bowl full of jelly" continue to bring us joy no matter how old we become. It is an image of giving, of generosity, of unselfishness, of love, that is without parallel in all of mythology. That is why I say, "God bless Santa!"

Yes, there is a parallel between the myth and the fact. It cannot be pressed too far, but this spirit of giving that we celebrate in Santa Claus finds its root in the OTHER celebration, the REAL Christmas story. It was totally generous, totally unselfish, totally loving for God to give us Jesus...our Savior. As scripture has it, "when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons."(8) Children who do not have to worry about "better watch out/better not cry," because he seems to come to us most especially at the point of our tears. Children who need not concern ourselves that "He's gonna find out who's naughty and nice," because he already knows...all the things that make us fail to live up to even old Scrooge's promise about honoring Christmas all the year. He comes to us and invites us to accept the gift he offers. The Christmas verse is, "For God so loved the world, that he GAVE his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life."

Giving IS what Christmas is all about. God has given us a wonderful gift. Jesus. Celebrate the gift. And celebrate the other Christmas as well, the one that features Santa, our culture's personification of giving - sitting there in the center of the mall with kids on his lap, standing on a street corner ringing a bell beside a kettle, going "Ho, Ho, Ho" as he rides his sleigh into the night sky of your TV screen - because Santa is about giving too. God bless Santa.

Which holiday are you going to celebrate this year? Both, I hope. Both are wonderful. If you are like me, before December 24th, you are going to the parties, sending Christmas cards, decorating the house, and probably spending more money than you had planned. But when the holy night arrives, you are going to leave the noisy party and join the commemoration of something beyond imagining - the incarnation, the coming of the Lord of all the universe in human flesh in the person of the Babe of Bethlehem. Amazing! "For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life" Enjoy the celebrations. Enjoy BOTH Christmases. And God bless us everyone!


1. Bill Keane, King Features Syndicate

2. Tom Armstrong, King Features Syndicate

3. Encyclopaedia Britannica, © 1994-1998

4. Luke 1:30-31

5. "Origins of the Religious Festival," via internet,

6. Microsoft Encarta '99, CD-ROM, © 1993-1998

7. "Ally McBeal," 12/11/00, written and produced by David E. Kelley

8. Galatians 4:4-5

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